With country music sales on the decline, the industry hopes for the arrival of an extraordinary talent – some artist who can rekindle commerce by restoring the public’s enthusiasm for the genre.
To state it bluntly: None of the five acts showcased at the 32nd annual New Faces Dinner and Show Saturday night (March 3) at the Nashville Convention Center have that kind of potential. The event capped the annual Country Radio Seminar, attended this year by around 3,000 broadcasting and music industry professionals. The show’s format was revamped in 2000. For years, 10 acts performed two songs each. In the current arrangement, five acts get an introductory video and four songs apiece.
Saturday night’s slate included Sara Evans , a relative veteran who has released three albums; Phil Vassar and Chris Cagle , songwriters-turned-artists who have issued one album each; and Trick Pony and the Clark Family Experience , who have hit singles and plenty of experience as touring performers but have yet to test the marketplace with a full-length CD.
All performed competently, though none inspired a unanimously enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. In what has become New Faces formula, all professed gratitude for the opportunity to play in front of the radio crowd and for the success each has enjoyed so far.
Vassar displayed a refreshing uniqueness. He plays piano, sings in a husky baritone and writes intelligent songs. His was the most elaborate video introduction, casting Vassar as secret agent “Phil Bond,” in pursuit of his stolen musical “juju.” “As you can tell, my acting career is not going to happen,” he joked with the radio crowd, “so please keep playing my records.” His set included his first hit, “Carlene,” his No. 1 single, “Just Another Day in Paradise,” and his current chart climber, “Rose Bouquet.” Vassar’s closing number, “Six-Pack Summer,” with its musical reference to the old Maurice Williams favorite, “Stay,” seemed to sit well with the radio folks, who may be considering it for airplay by the time the weather turns warm.
Trick Pony, fronted by vocalist Heidi Newfield, kicked off their set with their only single to date, the rockabilly number “Pour Me.” Bassist Ira Dean slapped and twirled his shiny, metallic, stand-up four-stringed instrument, complete with embedded headlights. Newfield, a seasoned performer, played a harmonica solo. In the balance of the set, the group previewed songs from their self-titled album, due March 13, and Dean did a comic John Anderson-sings-Led Zeppelin routine.
Evans debuted the video for her new single, a country cover of rocker Edwin McCain’s love ballad, “I Could Not Ask for More.” As the video ended, Evans appeared onstage, spotlit, to sing the final verse with her video image. Vince Gill was not on hand to sing his part in Evans’ No. 1 hit, “No Place That Far” (the song drew a vocal collaboration nomination from the Country Music Association). She closed with “Saints and Angels,” a song she says is her favorite on her latest album, Born to Fly.
Handlers must have had to restrain Cagle prior to his set. Sporting an open-collar shirt, black cowboy hat and black leather pants, he came dashing across the drum riser to sing his only hit, “My Love Goes On and On,” at the opening of his set. After his second number, Cagle said, “I’ve been waiting and dreaming and waiting my whole life for this night.” He thanked staffers at his former label, the recently closed Virgin Records, and at his new label, Capitol Nashville. Cagle’s brand of country leans heavily on rock conventions. All the acts made liberal use of overamped electric guitar, but Cagle’s band showed no restraint in that department and grew overbearing at times.
“Meanwhile Back at the Ranch” has given the Clark Family Experience credibility with radio programmers. The sextet of brothers from Rocky Mount, Va., has recorded with producers Tim McGraw and Bryan Gallimore and toured with the George Strait Country Music Festival but have not proved their mettle on record store shelves. Signed to Mike Curb’s label, they seem likely to follow in the footsteps of another famous Curb project, the Osmond Brothers. If country is to pull out of its dive, it will have to find something with more substance.